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Irupe and Pinon, both in their 40s, live in a community a few hours’ drive from Campo Grande, the capital city of Mato Grosso do Sul in mid-west Brazil. They told Human Rights Watch that the most recent incident of poisoning was in early 2018, when they felt spray from a tractor spraying pesticides in the nearby plantation. Among her symptoms, Irupe experienced dizziness, headache, and vomiting. © 2018 Marizilda Cruppé for Human Rights Watch
Human Rights Watch welcomes the opportunity to provide input to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the implications for human rights of the environmentally sound management and disposal of hazardous substances and wastes on the topic of pesticide exposure in Brazil, in preparation for his country visit to be held next December.

Exposure to pesticides can have severe impacts on the enjoyment of human rights, including the rights to health, to adequate food, to safe drinking water, and to a healthy environment.

Over the last 2 years Human Rights Watch has researched on the human rights impacts of pesticide use in Brazil. The country is one of the largest users of pesticides in the world and many of the pesticides used in Brazil are highly hazardous. In 2018, Human Rights Watch published the report “You Don’t Want to Breathe Poison Anymore” on the human rights impacts of pesticide drift on ordinary people in farming communities, indigenous communities, quilombola (Afro-Brazilian) communities, and rural schools across Brazil.

In this submission we outline the main findings of the report and its recommendations to the authorities, and the recent developments on pesticides and its implications to human rights.

Findings of the report

This section presents the main findings and recommendations of the report: rural residents are being poisoned in Brazil from pesticides sprayed near their homes, schools and workplaces; farmers often ignore a national “buffer zone” regulation that prohibits aerial spraying of pesticides near housing; people living in exposed communities fear reprisals from large landowners; and a bill is under discussion in Congress that would weaken the regulatory framework for pesticides.

The report documented cases of acute poisoning from pesticide drift in seven sites, located across Brazil, including farming communities, indigenous communities, quilombola (Afro-Brazilian) communities, and rural schools. The sites are in the immediate proximity of large plantations.

Exposure occurs when pesticide spray drifts off target during application, or when pesticides vaporize and drift to adjacent areas in the days after spraying.

People living in exposed sites reported having symptoms consistent with acute pesticide poisoning, such as vomiting, nausea, headache and dizziness, as well as sweating, elevated heart rate, during or immediately after nearby pesticide application.

Existing regulation by MAPA (Brazil’s ministry of agriculture) prohibits aerial spraying of pesticides within 500 meters of villages, cities, communities, neighborhoods, and water sources. However, this regulation is not consistently enforced. Human Rights Watch documented four cases in the seven sites where the aerial buffer zone was not respected.

There is no corresponding regulation prohibiting ground spraying near sensitive sites, even though ground spraying is the most common method of pesticide application. From 26 states plus the federal district, only eight have established buffer zones for mechanized ground spraying. Still, they also fail to enforce the norm. Human Rights Watch visited three of them – Goiás, Mato Grosso and Paraná – and documented four cases of ground spraying within five meters of schools.

ANVISA – the Brazil’ health protection agency, through its Program on Pesticide Residue Analysis in Food, called “PARA” monitors 25 common foods such as fruits, vegetables and cereals for 232 types of pesticides.  As we pointed out in our report, of the 12,000 samples collected in 2013-2015, about 20% contained pesticide residues that either exceeded permitted levels or contained unauthorized pesticides. PARA recognizes that its monitoring does not include the two most commonly used pesticide in Brazil (glyphosate and 2,4-D).

The government monitoring for contamination in drinking water is also weak and incomplete. Each year, an average of 67% of municipalities across the country do not submit any information about pesticides present in the water systems they manage, as provided by the regulation. The limited monitoring for pesticide residues in water and food is partly due to a scarcity of laboratory facilities.

People in exposed communities fear reprisals from large landowners if they denounce such poisonings or advocate for more protective laws and regulations. Threats or fear of retaliation were mentioned in five of the seven sites researched.

The report also raised concerns about the human rights implications of a pesticides bill approved by a Special Commission in Congress. The lower house still needs to vote on it before it goes to Senate. If approved, it would weaken the regulatory framework for pesticides. Among its provisions, the bill would substantially reduce the role of the Health and Environment Ministries, the agencies with expertise in the impacts of pesticide use.

Brazil should adopt measures to protect its population from highly hazardous pesticides. Brazilian authorities should undertake a thorough and time-bound review of the health and environmental impacts of current pesticide policies. While doing so, Brazil should impose a moratorium on aerial spraying and establish and enforce a nationwide regulation for a buffer zone around sensitive sites, including habitation and schools, for all forms of ground spraying. And Congress should reject any law reform efforts that weaken the regulatory framework for pesticides, including the bill currently before it.

Recent developments

Since Human Rights Watch published the report, cases of acute pesticide poisoning and violations of buffer zone provisions continue being documented across Brazil, while authorities have done little to protect Brazil’s population from highly hazardous pesticides.

The national buffer zone for aerial spraying remains ignored.

Last November, in a rural school in Paraná state, almost 100 people, including 52 children, were affected by a drift of paraquat, a highly hazardous pesticide, sprayed from a tractor in the adjacent farm, in violation of a state regulation that establishes a minimum distance of 500 meters between the pulverized area and “populated areas, schools, housing and recreation places”.

Students and teachers described to reporters of Agência Pública - a nonprofit investigative journalism agency in Brazil - symptoms such as headaches, dizziness and vomiting. Paraná is one of the states that does have a buffer zone for ground spraying. However, instead of taking additional measures to strengthen protection of human health, one month later, Paraná’s government revoked the state regulation containing the buffer zone provision[1], arguing the legislation needed modernizing. Early this year, following a Ministério Público request, a court’s interim injunction suspended the revocation of the norm.

The NGO Conselho Indigenista Missionário (CIMI) also reported that pesticide spraying beside an Indigenous community in Mato Grosso do Sul state caused acute poisoning in children. CIMI reported that the children presented symptoms such as shortness of breath, vomiting, stomach- and headaches.

Despite mounting evidence of the hazardous effects of exposure to pesticide drift, the government response remains inadequate. After the release of Human Rights Watch’s report, the Ministry of Agriculture indicated that it would enact a national regulation creating buffer zones for ground spraying. The former director of the Agricultural Defense Secretariat, Luis Rangel, told the national news program Jornal Nacional that he would “immediately abide” with the proposal to establish and enforce a nationwide regulation for a buffer zone around sensitive sites for all forms of ground spraying. In a meeting Human Rights Watch had with him and the former Minister of Agriculture, Blairo Maggi, they said the norm would be enacted by the end of 2018. But he left office before getting it done. And so far, the Ministry of Agriculture has not fulfilled its promise. Rural Brazilians remain exposed to highly hazardous pesticides, and the new minister, Tereza Cristina, in office since January 2019, should follow through on the promise.

In May 2019, ANVISA completed a review of the herbicide 2,4-d (2,4-dichlorophenoxyacetic acid), one of the most commonly used pesticides in Brazil and classified by the International Agency for Research on Cancer as possibly carcinogenic to humans. ANVISA decided to maintain its use subject to the adoption of protective measures to reduce occupational and environmental exposure.

Citing Human Rights Watch’s 2018 report on the impact of dangerous pesticides to rural communities, the health surveillance agency established a buffer zone for the spraying of 2,4-d in cases where there are sensitive sites, including populated areas, schools, housing or recreation places, within 500 meters from the plantation. However, the buffer zone is only 10 meters from the margins of the plantation which is significantly less than that established in other states and would not seem to provide adequate protection. For example, if there is a school right beside the plantation, the 10-meter buffer zone between the pulverized area and the school would seem very inadequate and not enough to protect the health conditions of students and teachers in the area. Some states in Brazil have established buffer zones for mechanized ground spraying ranging from 50 to 600 meters, and a new regulation should not be below these parameters.[2]

The provision is also limited to 2,4-d, while other pesticides, including glyphosate, also pose risks to human health.

As of November 1, the pesticides bill has not been voted on in Congress, but the bill is expected to be voted in the next few months. Other government measures have also raised concerns about pesticide exposure and its implications on health, including a high number of pesticide approvals. In the first seven months of 2019, more than 260 new pesticides or new brands of existing products have been approved. Some of them contain substances banned or restricted in the United States and Europe because of their toxicity. ANVISA classifies at least 82 of them as “extremely toxic”.

Experts have raised concerns that a new set of rules on classification and labelling of pesticides established risk of death as the only criterion for classifying a pesticide as “extremely toxic”. Until this latest change, ANVISA considered not only the risk of death but also reactions including eye and skin irritations when classifying pesticides as “extremely toxic”. Even if not lethal, these reactions can lead to long-term health impacts. These classifications help guide the use of pesticides in practice. However, the agency has not satisfactorily explained how its new rules provide adequate protection for public health. ANVISA’s rule change also comes at a time when the government is approving new pesticides – and new brands of old formulas – at a gallop. 

It is extremely concerning that Brazil is accelerating the approval of new pesticides, many of them dangerous to human health, while it fails to protect the population from pesticide poisoning. Brazil urgently needs to take concrete steps to limit pesticide exposure that is harmful to human health. In addition to the recommendations made in the report, Brazilian authorities should ensure that the approval of new pesticides and the new classification rules don’t result in additional threats to the enjoyment of human rights by its population.

The proliferation of highly hazardous pesticides requires stronger, not weaker, oversight and protections. The visit of the Special Rapporteur is crucially important in this moment precisely to exert pressure on the Brazilian government and Congress to not pass legislation or other measures that would weaken rules for the approval and use of pesticides.

Authorities should undertake an urgent and thorough analysis of the impact of pesticides on the health of rural communities and consider increasing, not decreasing, regulations to protect human health. While doing so, they should impose a moratorium on aerial spraying, and on ground spraying near homes, schools, and other sensitive sites. They should also carry out rigorous assessments of the potential health impacts of both previously approved and new pesticides, develop regulations to minimize impacts to human health from specific pesticides, and outright bans for the most toxic pesticides.

Pesticide use requires constant, rigorous scrutiny. Government failings to enforce stringent regulations and strong monitoring systems for pesticides residues in water and food can cause serious harm to human health and lead to serious human rights violations. The country’s consolidation of its position as an agricultural powerhouse exporting food globally should not come at the expense of Brazilians’ human rights.

[1] The Paraná state regulation establishes a buffer zone of 500 meters between the pulverized area and “populated areas, schools, housing and recreation places”, and of 250 meters between the pulverized area and “water sources, isolated dwellings and grouping of susceptible animals and crops”.

[2] The states of Acre (State Law 2,843 of 2014), Ceará (State Decree 23,705 of 1995), Goiás (State Law 19,423 of 2016), Mato Grosso (State Decree 1,651 of 2013), Paraná (State Secretary of Interior Resolution 22 of 1985), Piauí (State Law 5,626 of 2006), Rio Grande do Norte (State Law 8,672 of 2005), and Tocantins (State Law 224 of 1991) have buffer zones for mechanized ground spraying.

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